On DVD: Trouble in Mind

Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind is one of those unclassifiable messes that are almost as charming as they are mystifying, but not quite - and therein lies the rub. A deluge of atmosphere that incorporates references to everything from The Maltese Falcon to Blade Runner, this neo-noir never develops its own character - which is also to say that its characters themselves are too much concerned with their respective "type" to bother with being individuals. Rudolph crafts a story that adopts plot elements from Depression-era crime pictures and high noir into a pastiche tale that never narrows its focus, choosing instead to survey a landscape that is bizarre, entertaining, and colorful, but never enthralling.

Kris Kristofferson, wearing black noir formals (suit, trench coat, fedora), emerges from prison after being locked up for several years. He plays John Hawkins, who was once a detective for the Rain City PD, but he shot a man - someone who apparently deserved it. (We don't know much more than that.) Upon his release, Hawk returns to the semi-futuristic Rain City (a wholly recognizable turn by Seattle), just as Coop and Georgia (Keith Carradine and Lori Singer), a down-on-their-luck couple from the mountains, arrive in the city as well, having decided to try their luck in a new environment. 

Carradine's character immediately slips into a life of crime, pairing up with the sleazy Solo (Joe Morton) to pull off robberies of goods that they hope to sell to a local crime lord, Hilly Blue (Divine, out of drag, channeling Sydney Greenstreet). Hawk also starts to circle Hilly, in the hope of drumming up some "extra-legal" side work. But Hawk, whose main interest appears to be getting legitimately laid after essentially raping Wanda his first night out of stir, gets caught up in the drama between Coop and Georgia, who have split. Coop, who adopts a bizarre new look, spends all his time with his gang, and Georgia has taken their infant son and moved in with Wanda. Hawk keeps an eye on her, making his intentions with regard to Georgia explicitly clear.

This is far more plot detail than I usually like to get into when writing a review, but that's really what Trouble in Mind has going for it. It's packed with story, which keeps one engaged thanks to all of the incident and oddity. Unfortunately, the characters themselves aren't what keep us interested, nor is there any sort of coherent thematic through-line. The film is a hodgepodge of goings-on and style, an agglomeration of references, moods, and jokes. Kristofferson has the right dark quality for his role, and Bujold is appropriately shadowy as the woman with "a past." In fact, everyone does well in their respective parts, particularly Divine, whose entourage includes a grotesque mute henchman straight out of a Brian De Palma movie. But the actors aren't given enough to really flex their muscles, as Rudolph is more interested in their surroundings and situations. The production design owes much to Blade Runner, which was released three years earlier; the film's look is all rain-slicked asphalt reflecting neon lights. The photography is good, but nowadays, despite an effort to restore the image for this DVD release, Trouble in Mind is hampered by degradation of the low-quality film stock prevalent at the time of its production.

Rudolph has some of the whimsy of his mentor, Robert Altman, but at least in this case he has an insufficient grasp on his characters. They are flat and do not drive the story; instead, there is a sense that the script drives the story, and it is a mannered, self-conscious script that relies on pastiche instead of emotion or even technique. 

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